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Remarks on Rules, Norms and Robinson Crusoe

April 10, 2015

I’m in the middle of writing a post for my Wittgenstein blog dealing with understanding and rule-following. Along the way, I wrote the following notes which suddenly veer off into the vexed debate about whether a completely solitary being could follow rules. (The point of the debate is that if you need a community of beings to have rules then it seems you also can’t have a mind without being part of a community, since you can’t have a mind without the ability to follow rules. Or so it’s claimed.)

Hopefully the notes will be of interest to those who are into Wittgenstein and rule-following (and I’d be hugely grateful for comments from such people – as you’ll see, I find it all pretty confusing). But if that’s not you then I suggest you run for your life.

Rules, Norms and Robinson Crusoe

Can we say that practices (customary ways of living) are “logically” prior to rules?

I’m inclined towards that because it would be possible to grow up and integrate into a primitive society without ever being taught rules, but not without learning the society’s way of living. You simply copy what others do, and if your copying is accurate enough no-one is going to bother to teach you rules. Indeed, if that’s how everyone does it then there aren’t going to be any rules in a formal sense. Rather, there will be normative behaviour. Supposing you could speak, your justification for doing x rather than y wouldn’t be “that’s the rule”, but “that’s how we do things round here”.

Isn’t this how, say, chimp societies work? They have a very basic culture which can be grasped simply by imitation and practice. The baby watches his mother crack a nut with a stone. He tries it himself (without being told to), makes a hash of it at first, but in time masters the technique. At no point does the mother teach him or upbraid him for doing it wrong, or anything like that.

But the technique of nut-cracking is not so hard that (generally speaking) chimps would never get it without instruction. If it was, then either they simply wouldn’t have the technique as a normal part of their culture or else they’d have developed some basic form of instruction.

(This, by the way, seems to highlight a logical connection between rules and teaching. If you need the former, you need the latter. You only need the latter when you need the former.)

OK. social norms (practices, customary ways of living) form a series of interwoven patterns. So, in that respect, the pattern seems prior to rules as well.

I’m thinking of a “rule” as being something that’s formally expressed as such – eg, in a table or rule-book or something like that. I’m not saying that’s the only form that can be legitimately called “rules”, but it’s a helpful paradigm case. I’m assuming that there’s a seamless transition from such full-blown rules to normative behaviour (ie, behaviour which can be labeled “correct” or “incorrect”) and on to just pleasing oneself.

Slowly the culture becomes more complex until mastering its techniques requires not just imitation but instruction. And rules emerge along with that additional complexity.

And isn’t this where the “attitude towards a soul” emerges too?

(Think about the difference between the special significance one dog has for another – their striking behaviour towards each other – and the full-blown notion of an attitude towards a soul. For it would surely be absurd to say one dog regards another as a soul. Yet you can sort of see the humble beginnings of that attitude in dogs.)

I want to say that you can’t have rules until you have an attitude towards a soul. But that makes it sound like: first you get the soul, then you can have the rules. But that’s a mis-interpretation because the converse is also true: you can’t have an attitude towards a soul until you have rules. The two emerge together or not at all.

But maybe I’d better say: you can’t have rules as we have them without our attitude towards a soul. Because the above sounds too much like a transcendental argument.

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that Wittgenstein is all about the rules. He exults them, builds his whole philosophy upon them, etc. And it’s easy to think that because he talks about them so much and points out so many remarkable things about them. But actually he also humbles them. They are codified abstractions of regular practices needed because without them (as part of the activity of teaching) we wouldn’t be able to master the established techniques of the culture into which we’re born.

Doesn’t this go against Hacker’s claim that a solitary person could follow rules? A Robinson Crusoe could learn by himself and thereby develop personal norms. But he couldn’t teach himself, and therefore wouldn’t have rules. He could develop behavioural norms which we could distill into rules, but could they be rules for him?

But against that, the whole business of evolving rules to meet the needs of an increasingly complex form of life is just how it seems to have been with us. That doesn’t mean it’s a logical necessity. True, you have to imagine wildly unrealistic circumstances (eg, that an adult human could exist who had not been raised by others in any shape or form) to get the “Robinson Crusoe” argument off the ground, but no-one’s denying that, least of all Hacker.

The point at which we (ie, human beings) need formal rules rather than mere norms (copyable patterns) is a function of our intellectual ability. There could be creatures who simply picked up (or were even born with) techniques that have to be drilled into us over long, arduous years (eg, writing, mathematics – and even here prodigies can do startling things). And such creatures could be solitary.

But does this show the possibility of a solitary rule-follower, or the fact that what is for us necessarily rule-governed behaviour might be a matter of mere convention for a creature with the requisite natural abilities?

  1. Rob permalink

    Thanks for this, I have been thinking about this recently, but still am not clear about it. Here is a question. What would you think about, say, a mildly autistic person who eats the same food every day for several months. Imagine someone offers this person some other food one day and they say “no thanks, I really need to continue my routine”, and they then go home and do just that. Would this be a case of solitary rule following? And if not, what is it a case of?

    • Hi Rob, sorry for not replying sooner. First, as Paul Johnson has pointed out over on my Wittgenstein blog, this post makes a pretty crass blunder about what counts as following a rule. I’m no longer wedded to its line of thought.

      However, regarding your point: yes, that would certainly be a rule. The philosophical problem, however, is not about whether one person in a rule-following community could construct rules for him/her self, but whether rules are possible given no wider community whatsoever. I think the answer is still yes, but it does make the issue a bit trickier.

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